‘It started with informal discussions – we decided something should be done to organise among migrant workers in the south coast region.
So we hired a room in a pub one Saturday in August last year. We were hoping to get maybe 20 people along – but 112 migrant workers turned up.
We made a point of explaining to them their wages, conditions and rights as workers. We heard a range of horror stories – people who had suffered everything from sex trafficking to vicious employer exploitation.
We organised another meeting with solicitors and community groups to get people advice on a range of issues.
The key thing is the migrant workers organising themselves. The workers decided they wanted their own branch, mostly because of the language issues.
So we set up the GMB’s migrant workers’ Wessex branch. Some 70 people came along to the first branch meeting.
The union has organised free language classes and set up an information centre. After we opened the centre, another 80 people joined the union. We now have 87 people doing the English language classes.
One success story was at World Flowers. Migrant agency workers got organised, forced union recognition on the company and tackled a rogue employment agency.
That doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect – they still have to ring up every day to see if they have work or not. But it shows what can be done.
For instance, one worker was initially sacked at the start of our campaign. She was fired for handing out union leaflets in Polish. After the pressure of the threat of a picket was put on the agency, they reinstated her.
She went into work the next day in a GMB T-shirt and was handing out the very same leaflets she had been sacked for.
There are 14 Polish activists training to be union reps in the region at the minute – and we need more.
In one case we organised 60 Polish and Portuguese workers together into the union after their boss took away the transport provided to take people to the site, which was in the middle of nowhere. He told them all to buy cars instead!
Organising migrant workers is an important issue. We are looking to replicate this model around the country.’